With 155 national forests in our country, the dubious honor of ranking fourth in the nation for having national forest land threatened by sprawl should be of no surprise to most of us living in the region. However, the scale of the prediction is staggering. Based on past growth trends for our state, the Forest Service predicts that more than 1 million acres of private land that lies within 10 miles of National Forest land in North Carolina will experience an increase in housing density by 2030. Given that North Carolina can expect to lose another 2 million acres of farmland and forests over the next 20 years, roughly 100,000 acres per year, does not make this prediction any rosier. In 2005, the state lost 1,000 farms, and between 2002 and 2005 North Carolina lost roughly 6,000 farms and more than 300,000 acres of farmland, most of this to urban sprawl.
The report warns that increased development and accompanying landscape alteration on private rural lands adjacent to national forests and grasslands will have significant implications for the management and conservation of public land resources, ecological services and products, and social and cultural amenities. The following examples are among the consequences that may be associated with increased housing density on the periphery of National Forest lands:
• Reduced populations of native fish and wildlife.
• Replacement of native plants, reduced plant diversity and introduction of diseases.
• Decreased public access to national forests for recreation and other uses.
• Increased potential for wildland fires.
• Reduced water quality.
• Increased potential for encroachment, trespassing and unauthorized use of national forests and national grasslands.
• Reduction in timber and other forest products.
The good news is that solutions are readily available. We can call on North Carolina’s congressional delegation to push for more funding to acquire key lands. A greater investment in federal land conservation programs can help to stem the loss of forests and prevent a host of negative impacts on our public lands and communities.
The most direct and effective means of responding to the threats and challenges identified in the report is to protect threatened private lands within and surrounding national forest through public acquisition and purchase of development rights. Two very effective federal programs exist for these purposes, the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Forest Legacy Program, but they have only been funded at a fraction of the levels needed to prevent the loss of private lands and associated impacts identified in the report.
In North Carolina, the Forest Service has made a $4.2 million dollar request for the 2009 LWCF budget. This request will acquire three tracts that will protect and provide access to three important areas within and adjacent to our National Forests: Catawba Falls, the Uwharrie Trail, and the Appalachian Trail.
The Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has proposed two projects to the U.S. Forest Legacy Program for fiscal year 2009. Both projects will assist landowners in permanently protecting working forests and their conservation values. The first, the 176-acre Turkeypen tract, was ranked second in priority in North Carolina. The tract adjoins Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County at the Turkeypen trailhead, a popular access point for recreational users of the Forest. The Redden tract at 810 acres was ranked third among Forest Legacy projects in North Carolina. It shares a 7,000-foot boundary with Pisgah National Forest in the Upper Mills River watershed in Henderson County. Its 12,500 feet of trout streams protect habit for the rare Appalachian elktoe mussel. The tract also provides a buffer to the Great Balsam Mountain and Pisgah Ridge Natural Heritage area. In all, the conservation of these tracts would add significant protection to the natural resources along the periphery of the Pisgah National Forest in Henderson and Transylvania counties.
The Forest Service has sounded the alarm bell regarding development pressures surrounding national forests and grasslands and on our nation’s private forests in general. Congress must answer the call by funding LWCF and the Forest Legacy Program at the levels needed to meet the challenges identified in the Forest Service reports. We urge Congress to ramp up to full funding of LWCF at $900 million annually over the next four years, and a similar ramp up to $200 million annually for the Forest Legacy Program over the same period. This is an urgent and wise investment in our future.